Excavating Jesus: The Real Christ?
John Dominic Crossan, the co-founder of the Jesus Seminar, is well known for his iconoclastic views on the historical Jesus. Excavating Jesus, written with archaeologist Jonathan Reed, is stimulating and challenging. Crossan’s argument that Jesus was a Galilean peasant who engendered a Kingdom movement after the murder of John the Baptist is compelling to me as an anthropologist, but it doesn’t seem to be the whole story.
The blending of archaeology and exegesis is intriguing. The use of ancient historical sources, such as Josephus and Pliny, and literature not included in the Bible, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Gnostic Gospels, weaves a colorful and variegated tapestry. Is this the actual Jesus of history?
I’m not entirely convinced. To me it seems implausible that such a movement could arise from so unremarkable a prophet. The number of Jews killed by Rome for posing as popular leaders is very large. Why would one be singled out for such an inflation into the Word made flesh? If the Gospel stories are to be taken as parables or mythic metaphors about a deeper meaning, who created this literature and for what reason? If Christianity were created in this way, it would be a social and cultural process without parallel. Zoroaster (the Persian priest who founded Zoroastrianism), Sidartha Gauthama, (the founder of Bhuddism), and the Prophet Mohammed (the founder of Islam), are remarkable historical figures – but none of them according to their followers claimed to be God.
If somehow the peasant founder or spokesman for a resistance or “terrorist” movement is magnified by his followers, why would devout Jews be so blasphemous as to make him into the messiah and a god? Somewhere there is a missing link between this peasant of history and the Christ of history.
It is very curious how Crossan holds the Gospel accounts up to the measure of Josephus’s history. Crossan then compares the claims of other contemporary religions as part of a general magical mentality. Somehow, Josephus could write from an historical perspective of relating true events but the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus are to be seen as parable and allegory? That isn’t to say that various oral and written sources weren’t involved in the development of the Gospel accounts. In fact Crossan goes to some effort to stress that the early Christian community took them to be true and those involved in their composition believed in their veracity.
All in all, there is still a core of speculation in this fascinating book. It is an attempt to put many puzzle pieces together. It seems, though, that the Jesus he finds would not be capable of inspiring a Jesus movement that would grow into Christianity. In many respects, Crossan’s Jesus of history could inspire a movement, but it does not seem plausible that it would endure, let alone become a world religion.